Alexander Boris de Pericles Johnson

Alexander may be the given first name of the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, but he prefers himself to look to Athens rather than Macedon for political inspiration. During the Tory leadership campaign, at least, during the now famous TalkRadio interview in which he professed to a hitherto unsuspected bus-painting hobby, Johnson said (to use the transcription on the TalkRadio website):

I’ve always greatly admired Pericles of Athens because he was the guy who said, uh, that politics was about the many, not the few. He was the first to use exactly that… a great orator. And, uh, he, uh, it was said that he thundered and lightened when he spoke. But what he did is he used great infrastructure. He invested in fantastic infrastructure. Uh, he developed the, the, not just the Acropolis, but the Piraeus port which was integral to the success of a lot of Athens.

Nor was this the first campaign during which Johnson invoked the name of Pericles. According to a feature in the Spectator magazine in May 2016, Johnson ‘contends that Pericles, the great Athenian statesman he so often cites, would also have been an Outer. Boris argues that “to stick up for democracy is entirely Periclean” and that the referendum ultimately comes down to whether you believe in “rule by the many, not the few”’. Johnson is said, moreover, to have a bust of Pericles in his office.

Boris Johnson admiring bust of Pericles
Boris Johnson has been eager to play up his classical connections, as in this 2011 Mail on Sunday article

Johnson’s Periclean self-projection has unsurprisingly been picked up ‒ and tweaked ‒ in newspaper discussion on his leadership. Patrick Kidd in the Times wrote a piece the other day entitled ‘Boris Johnson could prove more of a chancer than his hero Pericles’. In this column he referred to the TalkRadio interview, writing: ‘Asked recently why he so admires Pericles, Johnson said that the Greek believed government should be conducted “by the many, not the few” (a phrase subtly different from “for the many”), that he was a magnificent orator who “thundered and lightened when he spoke” and that he “invested in fantastic infrastructure”.’ Kidd then develops the thesis that Johnson may be more of an Alcibiades ‒ arrogant, spoiled, charismatic to some, a disaster to Athens. The same suggestion is made by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. The more learned of the online comments go a bit further and invoke the name of Cleon.

Two names stand out in these discussions for their absence: Thucydides and Plutarch, the two key authors through whom we derive our varied pictures of Pericles and his successors. The public debate carries on as if we have unmediated access to the world of Athenian politics. Our main sources, however, make Pericles central to strong historical plots, and it is they who are responsible for the words which are sometimes attributed to Pericles himself.

Plutarch’s Life of Pericles adds a dimension not found in Johnson’s idealization of Pericles: time. Plutarch posits a change between the early and the late Pericles – a change from a more demagogic to a more aristocratic mode of government. This change solves the problem of the divergence between the Thucydidean and Platonic image of Pericles: the negative Platonic image of Pericles’ pandering to the people is restricted to the early portion of Pericles’ life; for the later stages, Plutarch explicitly supports the Thucydidean picture of a Pericles who resists the people’s whims.

Johnson recuperates as positive much that in Plutarch is highly ambivalent. The imagery of thunder and lightning applied to Pericles’ rhetoric is taken from Plutarch, via the comic playwright Aristophanes’ Acharnians. In Aristophanes, the presentation of Pericles’ powers of persuasion is highly negative. He is arraigned for using his linguistic skills to foist the disruption of the Peloponnesian War on the Greeks, and all for petty personal motives. Similarly ambivalent in Plutarch is the presentation of Pericles’ spending on infrastructure. Though Plutarch acknowledges the beauty of the temples that Pericles had built, he also reports strong criticisms of Pericles for spending the allies’ financial contributions on beautifying Athens like a ‘vain woman’.

As for the language of the many and the few, the source for that lies in the famous funeral speech that Thucydides places in the mouth of Pericles during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. In this speech (written up by Thucydides perhaps a quarter of a century or more after it was supposedly delivered), Pericles is made to say that Athens is called a democracy because it is governed ‘for the many rather than for the few’. Pericles’ language is in fact evoked most closely by the slogan of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the party’s 2017 election manifesto. But in Thucydides’ speech Pericles grants democracy this definition as a concession. He explains that Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests of the many, but he immediately qualifies this claim by stressing that it allows individuals to achieve a status that matches their personal excellence. It is a definition that prepares for Thucydides’ own claim that Athens under Pericles was in name a democracy but in fact rule by the first man. Pericles, on Thucydides’ reading, had the strength to resist the changing moods of the people (he notably fails to call an assembly when he sees that they are angry at the immediate results of the Peloponnesians’ first invasion of Attica).


Would Pericles have been an ‘outer’? Obviously not … but perhaps it is better to dismiss that question as an anachronistic absurdity. A more productive use of anachronism may be to explore the similarities and differences between Pericles’ imperial Athens, imposing standardized measures on the subject allies that she (in Thucydides’ view) tyrannically enslaved, and the fantasy image of Brussels cooked up by irresponsible journalists like the young Johnson. Anachronisms aside, it is worth dwelling on (Thucydides’) Pericles’ boast that his generation handed down a city more powerful than the one it inherited, and wondering on the prospects that future historians will say the same of the United Kingdom during its current rule by a Conservative and Unionist Party controlled by the products of 1980s Oxford.


• In a 2011 feature for the Mail on Sunday, as shown in the screenshot above, Johnson offered a section of the Funeral Speech given by Thucydides’ Pericles as one of his favourite Greek quotes, although readers should note that in this ghost-written piece placed to support an educational initiative, the task of finding the actual Greek quotes was outsourced to a member of the Anachronism team.

Galen, Polybius and the construction of authority

The desire to connect with important figures from the past leads authors from later antiquity into anachronism, as they seek to establish connections with earlier writers. These were the findings reported in the final two papers of our Anachronism and Antiquity seminar series, ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine: Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’ by Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, and ‘Polybian Temporalities’ by John Marincola. The continuing authority of intellectual traditions associated with Plato and Hippocrates in particular saw writers asserting a connection to them and the intellectual traditions associated with them. These two papers showed Galen and Polybius to use and manipulate traditions associated with specific areas of expertise, respectively medicine and political theory. The close readings their speakers offered enabled us to see the distinctive strategies used by each.

Galen group from the Vienna Dioscurides MS - seven doctors with Galen in the centre
Another anachronistic community: Galen, seated centre in a position of authority, among a group of doctors and pharmacologists, some of whom predate him. From a sixth-century illuminated manuscript which contains the De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides and texts by other doctors pictured. 3v Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.

Catherine Darbo-Peschanski opened her paper by setting out Galen’s intellectual context and the many developments in both abstract areas of philosophical thought, such as metaphysics and epistemology, and more applied medical thought, such as the new understanding of the human body gained through dissection, which separate the second century CE writer from the fourth century BCE. Galen’s desire to associate his own arguments and ideas with distant predecessors becomes an engine for generating anachronisms, as he seeks out passages in their texts which can be associated with later ideas. Although Brooke Holmes’ paper at our Florida conference last year had a very different approach, she likewise found Galen’s readings of Hippocratic texts to be an important site for the manipulation of genealogical time in the pursuit of scholarly authority.

Polybius is an author whose work has received relatively little scholarly attention, perhaps in the shadow of Frank Walbank’s massive historical commentary, although there are signs of a Polybian Renaissance and his models if not his actual text have long been of interest to historians of political thought. John Marincola showed the sophistication of Polybius’ understanding of time in his great project to weave together the histories of the Mediterranean world and explain the rise of Rome. Polybius’ excursus into political theorising in book 6, in which he explains the growth and success of the Roman Republic through anacyclosis, a universal model of political development and change into which all political communities can be fitted, is an interesting example of the incorporation and modification of traditions, while asserting the authority of a key figure from the past. His account of the development of political societies clearly owes a great deal to Plato’s account in Laws III, although he is clear that he is extending it (6.5.1), with the incorporation of newer ideas from authors intermediate between him and Plato. Only Plato, and the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, are named.

The urge to create connections with intellectual founding figures and their ideas through the construction of genealogies is widely prevalent in ancient thought. But intellectual filiations such as those between Galen, Plato and Hippocrates appear to operate much like other forms of genealogical explanation. While complete king lists were developed by chroniclers, only a few kings were the subjects of myths frequently told. Founder kings attract more stories, as do those who are involved in significant political change, such as Theseus as synoecist of Athens. Only these kings appear in the literary tradition, in Athenian rhetoric or allusions to the distant past in historical and philosophical texts.

We can find these practices replicated in contemporary academic practice. The use of Thucydides and Herodotus to represent all of ancient historiography generates many problems for those seeking to contrast ancient and modern approaches to the writing of history. Firstly, the historians of the later Greek and Roman worlds were able to work with and manipulate an established tradition. Secondly, this manipulation of tradition is apparent in the genealogical histories of other disciplines, particularly the histories of medicine and philosophy, as Galen’s works amply demonstrate. Both Darbo-Peschanski and Marincola have made important contributions to scholarship in this area, and their papers showed how careful reading of ancient texts can still reveal new insights into the intellectual culture of antiquity.


  • Darbo-Peschanski, C. (2007) L’historia: commencements grecs. Paris.
  • Gotteland, S. (1998), ‘Généalogies mythiques et politique chez les orateurs attiques’, in D. Auger and S. Saïd (eds.), Généalogies Mythiques. Paris, 379-93.
  • Marincola, J. (1997) Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge.
  • Walbank, F.W. (1957-79) A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols. Oxford.

Banal Antiquity: Koons and Anachronism

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

February 7 – June 9, 2019

Team Anachronism recently took some time to gaze into Jeff Koons’ highly polished surfaces, oversized steel trinkets and eye-wateringly expensive blue balls. The show comprises seventeen artworks from one of the most notorious figures in the contemporary art-world, split up into three rooms – “Banality”, “Antiquity” and “Gazing Balls”. Across these sections is a fairly idiosyncratic selection from Koons’ back-catalogue. There is none of the controversy-courting “Made in Heaven” series,[1] though “Rabbit” (1986) is here, Koons’ first major foray into the steel balloon aesthetic for which he is best known. For viewers, looking at the brilliant reflection of a shiny bunny and seeing themselves, it’s hard to fight a sense that the only responses possible here are ennui, hermeneutic and historical.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.36.46
“Rabbit” stainless steel
41 x 19 x 12 inches 
104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm
© Jeff Koons

In 2019, the art world loves to hate Jeff Koons.[2] As the living embodiment of its bad conscience and the man who has most successfully exploited the irreconcilable logic of turning art into commodity, Koons is all the more irritating because he appears to sleep soundly at night undisturbed by the nightmarish contradictions of such an existence. His practice might be best described as Warhol on steroids, and the kind of critiques of Warhol are ramped up accordingly when directed at Koons. He is the investment banker turned artist who sells art to investment bankers and the rest of the one percent. He is the maverick who either exposes the worst contradictions of capitalism or just materializes them to make a quick buck. If we take the holy marketing doctrine that “sex sells”, what better realization of that reasoning than to make explicit and phenomenally unnecessary art featuring you and your pornstar wife? All surface, no depth – good clean post-modern fun. And yet, in a dawning age of new global fascism, Koons’ erotics of nihilism make him the artist of the age. It is this apposite distillation of culture (one kind of timeliness) together with an on-going interest in the materials and aesthetics of classical antiquity, that make Koons a particularly choice artist to think about under the rubric of anachronism.

Antiquity has become a core part of Koons’ practice: the works in the second room are mostly drawn from a series in 2008 called “Antiquity”. In addition we have the works in the third room, the “Gazing Balls” pieces. So Hal Foster is quite right in his observation that “classical statuary” is one of Koons’ three categories (the other two being “kitsch” and “porn”)[3]. Antiquity is primarily an aesthetic in Koons’ practice of radically transforming ancient form into modern medium (as in his “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” take on the Venus of Willendorf) or superimposing antiquity as collage (as in his Aphrodite riding a dolphin, in which a Bettie Page model is rendered as the goddess straddling a dolphin about to fellate a blow-up monkey).

Koons does, however, engage conceptually with antiquity too, particularly around the idea of representation and authenticity. In a recent interview, he comments on the transcendental in his practice: “If I’m working with a copy, I’m doing it as reference because what I’m really interested in is the Platonic idea of the piece”.[4] Koons deals with the concept of aesthetic originality through the extreme practice of reproduction. He is deeply invested in the copy: for example, the painting of an Old Master that appears identical but is not quite to scale or the ancient sculptural group that is reproduced from its Roman copy in place of the original. These are copies that revel in drawing attention to their iterability. Koons’ mimetic practice constitutes a transcendence of sorts, but that is a term so featherweight in its critical purchase that it sails out of the window. This practice is glib:  you can barely construe this as a response to the nexus of problems that have accumulated around mimesis in the history of philosophy in the last two thousand years. Walking out of the cave might make you very rich indeed.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.33.44.png
“Ballon Venus” mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating
102 x 48 x 50 inches
259.1 x 121.9 x 127 cm
© Jeff Koons

Antiquity is the loose thematic unity of the second room. It has several large canvasses displaying almost exact replicas of oil paintings on which Koons has enacted his collage of art history techniques. You are confronted immediately however with three enormous steel statues. Two are oversized replicas of ballet dancer figurines, the kind that might appear on a suburban mantelpiece. The third figure is Koon’s response to the Venus of Willendorf in “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” (2008-2012). The accompanying signage for “Rabbit” indicates what steel means as a medium for Koons, and why he might have chosen it to represent Venus: “The surface of my stainless steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of the reflective surface”. The totalitarian undertones of purity as the rubric for sex is evident in this zero-sum of erotic relations. “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” transforms the ancient stone fertility symbol from a handheld talismanic object of sexual meaning into a larger than life, multi-ton steel structure. Her highly polished reflective surfaces throw the viewer back on themselves a hundred times, perhaps so you might avoid thinking how neutered the goddess herself has become. Here is Venus translated for the twenty first century: she could have been a gloriously vital magenta sex symbol – but she’s cold to the touch.

Venus and satyr
“Antiquity 1” oil on canvas 108 x 84 inches/274.3 x 213.4 cm © Jeff Koons 2009-2012

In the same room as these sculptures are selected parts of the series called “Antiquity”. On some of these, Koons and his army of technicians have recreated almost stroke for stroke the oil paintings of a little known early twentieth century painter Louis Eilshemius, over which various images of Greek sculpture are placed. Other canvases have landscapes, as gaudy and generic as a screensaver, serving as the background to the same jumble of ancient images. On top of some of these are diagrammatized female genitalia, recalling Gustave Courbet’s frank and full-bushed “The Origin of the World” (1866). All these canvasses display a statue group in which a Venus is about to strike a groping satyr and raises her shoe in consternation.

Balloon Venus in front of painting from Antiquity series
Balloon Venus and Antiquity series on display at the Ashmolean. Photo C. Atack.

Koons scours his own back catalogue for inspiration for the collaging, providing a monkey and the dolphin for the final canvas. “Antiquity 2 (Dots)” shows the model Gretchen Mol, made up as the early twentieth century pin-up Bettie Page, astride the dolphin and about to seduce an inflatable monkey. In the corner of this canvas is the image of another satyr, ithyphallic and menacing behind the central three figures. Does this rockabilly Aphrodite disinter given logics of sex? Did it matter that Koons only found out after the making of this piece that the ancient myth included this scene or is the sum total of what’s on display here just a fluency with the visual idioms of mainstream porn, ancient and modern? Koons’ mixing of media and imagery is bold – the point could perhaps be construed as a parallel between sexual ethics, ancient and modern, and thus anachronistic. But in Koons’ world, sex, and antiquity for that matter, appear exclusively in the commodity state with no room for the messy realities of (desiring) the past, people, and things.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.42.08
Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) plaster and glass 
71 1/2 x 29 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches
181.6 x 75.9 x 89.2 cm
© Jeff Koons

In the next room, “Gazing Balls” has replicas of iconic paintings and sculptures from the history of Western art to which Koons has added polished balls in electric steel. Any pun one could make about blue balls is anticipated by Koons – it is so knowing of the irony, it has already undercut itself a thousand times. The overall visual statement that Koons makes with the addition of these balls is so self-congratulatory that he has almost no need for a viewer to gaze into them. Once more the attention to detail in making replicas advertises technical mastery. The reproduction technique of the ancient sculptures is particularly disturbing. Koons gives us replicas of the plaster casts in all their un-patinated white purity – even if he was aware that the original sculptures were colorfully painted, it is not clear to me that this would trouble his vacuous fetish of the replica. The sheer laziness of this practice is breathtaking given the contemporary scholarly and public conversations around the politics of colour and race in the aesthetics of antiquity. In the virtuosic display of reproduction, Koons’ aesthetic calculus of purity implicates race as well as sex.

Among the replicas of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” (1818-19) and an everyday American postbox, Koons makes his blue ball steel additions to the Belvedere torso and Praxiteles’ Silenus with Baby Dionysus. It could be anachronism in action: the familiarity of ancient artworks thrown into disarray by being re-positioned and re-situated. Or, the gazing balls could invite us to reconsider how our relationships with antiquity are mediated by subjective notions of value. Or they could require us to review the ideological frameworks of spectatorship of which we might be more of less aware. There’s nothing here though to prompt such critical thinking – this is art that armours itself against theory.

Koons would like us to walk away with the idea that history of art is radically democractic – open to all, no prior knowledge needed. And yet in the market place of value, the ideologically suspect parts give the game away. His uncritical porno-historiography allows us to understand that cultural value is not under examination here, however bold the juxtapositions of ancient and modern artworks seem to be. In an aesthetic worldview where sex is pure, and reflections provide insight only into yourself, history runs exclusively in one direction. Koons might appear to be the anachronic artist par excellence. Anachronism and Antiquity has sought to construe relationships between past and present in surprising and critically energizing ways. We have paid attention to works of art that create relationships across time that challenge expectation or arrest assumptions about the linear flow of time. In Koons’ sterile world the multi-temporal potential of art points only to history as glossy abyss. Here, only the logic of the commodity reproduction is untouchable.

  • Images sourced from, except for installation shot.






Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative: time episodic, relative, and absolute

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a blog about the current episode in British political life (relatively awful or absolutely the pits?). This is not it.

In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus reports a crisis in the Persian empire. King Cambyses has had his brother Smerdis secretly murdered and then gone on an expedition against Egypt. In his absence, two brothers, one of them called Smerdis, from the Median priestly caste of Magi, usurp the throne, with Smerdis pretending to be Cambyses’ brother of the same name. Cambyses dies in Syria, after a reign of seven years and five months. After the imposters have reigned for seven months, a group of conspirators forms to overthrow them. As the conspirators move towards the palace, Herodotus interrupts the narrative to describe events taking place at the same time in the court. The usurpers try to persuade Prexaspes, a courtier who had been given the task of killing Cambyses’ brother, to proclaim openly his support for the usurper Smerdis. But things do not go according to their plan. Prexaspes, addressing the Persians from a tower, exposes the Magi’s deception to the crowd and then kills himself by throwing himself from the tower. This dramatic event happens just as the conspirators are reaching the palace. Herodotus then switches back to them: forcefully led by Darius, they gain entry to the palace and complete the job (3.69‒79).

The Behistun inscription narrates the rise to power of Darius I
The Behistun inscription provides another source for the story of Darius’ rise to power (Mount Behistun, Iran).

Herodotus’ account of this incident receives detailed treatment in Donald J. Wilcox’s 1987 monograph The Measures of Time Past – a work that has influenced a number of scholars of anachronism ancient and modern. Wilcox’s book is based on a distinction between ‘relative time’, which prevailed until Newton, and ‘absolute time’, which was uncovered by Newtonian physics. In relative time, events themselves create their own time-frame. In absolute time, there is a time-line that contains the events. Absolute time is ‘objective, continuous, all-embracing’; in Newton’s own words, it flows ‘equably without regard to anything external’. Wilcox fleshes out this model further by tracing a path from relative to absolute time through figures such as Augustine, Bede and Scaliger, the final step before Newton being the invention of the BC/AD system ‒ a system founded on ‘a single, continuous, and linear time frame’ which proved ‘fit for the use of those who accepted the notion of absolute time’.

Wilcox sees Herodotus’ account of the conspiracy as an example of ‘episodic time’ ‒ a form of relative time which was ‘discontinuous, emphasizing process rather than the progressive building of events on one another’, and in which ‘the exact temporal order was not an important factor in the process that produced the final result’. He describes the account as episodic because he finds it impossible that Herodotus had a grasp of the temporal order of the events: how could the conspirators have entered the palace after the death of Prexaspes? Herodotus, he concludes, ‘was willing to sacrifice neither story to the demands of a linear sequence and had available a sense of time which allowed him to keep both’: ‘the determining factor … was the moral and social context of the events’ ‒ in this case ‘the remoteness of the eastern kings’, ‘the arrogance and intrigue of the court’, and ‘the boldness and decisiveness’ of Darius.

Wilcox’s argument helpfully stresses the cultural contingency of systems of time-measurement: he allows that our own dating system ‘would have been as inaccurate in the eyes of Herodotus and Thucydides as their relative dating is primitive in ours’. But there are historical and conceptual problems in his arguments, and problems, too, in the way that he reads the ancient historians.

Let us first return to Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative. One problem with Wilcox’s reading is that he ignores the clear explanation in Herodotus’ narrative of how the conspirators were able to gain entry to the palace: it was their high status that won over the guards. Herodotus also suggests that they enjoy some form of divine assistance, revealed by an omen. Wilcox ignores, too, the fact that the conspirators realize that Prexaspes’ action endangers their plan and that the eunuchs in the palace, once they realize what has happened, threaten the guards with dire punishment. Herodotus highlights the very problem that Wilcox claims he ignores because of his sense of ‘episodic time’.

Wilcox’s reading of Herodotus’ account ignores the strong thematic links that bind the parallel narratives together. The most important theme relates to truth and lies. (As I said, this is not about Brexit.) Darius tells his fellow conspirators that he will offer a lie (fake news from the king) to ensure that they can pass into the palace; he suggests that people tell the truth or lie entirely in accordance with their self-interest. Prexaspes’ self-sacrifice in telling the truth at the cost of his own life offers at least a partial modification of Darius’ sophistic assertion. (Oxford has some towers, too…)

What of Wilcox’s general notion of relative and absolute time? The main historical problem lies in his account of BC/AD dating. He repeats the common contention that this ‘absolute’ system was invented by the French Jesuit Denis Pétau (Dionysius Petavius) in his 1627 Opus de doctrina temporum. In fact, datings before Christ’s birth are already attested (albeit rarely) in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in the eighth century (Caesar crossed to Britain ‘in the sixtieth year before the incarnation of the Lord’). They become more common in the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth they appear in graphic timelines (e.g. as the Carthusian Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum (1474)). Prior to Petavius, Scaliger discussed the shortcomings of ‘ante Christum’ dating by contrast with his own Julian Period ‒ a period of 7980 years based on a 28-year solar cycle, a 19-year lunar cycle and a 15-year indiction cycle ‒ which provides a continuous timeline well adapted for astronomical calculations (and is indeed still used for this purpose). The shortcomings of BC dating were recognized by Petavius too: he explained that he included BC dates only for those who might be scared of the unfamiliar Julian Period, but he makes the Julian Period his main chronological anchor. It is true that BC dates were used by Newton in his posthumous Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) ‒ but he also uses the Julian Period for an astronomical calculation. It was the nineteenth-century discovery of the age of the planet that rendered it (and rivals such as anno mundi dating) less useful (even though Scaliger conceived of the possibility of an infinity of earlier Julian Periods).

The conceptual problems in Wilcox’s model spring from his failure to distinguish between the measurement of time and time itself. With the ancient historians he looks at how time is presented in narratives; with Newton he explores ideas of time. And yet Newton’s time is in some ways not too far removed from some Greek conceptions of chronos ‒ which some classicists describe as an ‘absolute time’ by contrast with aiōn, ‘relative time’ (e.g. Collard on Euripides Suppliant Women 787‒8). Chronos is as universal as Newton’s ‘all-embracing’ time: ‘“all things” are regularly the target of time’s activity’ (Finglass on Sophocles Ajax 646‒7); it is ‘unwearying’, and ‘full in its ever-flowing stream it goes its round begetting itself’ (Critias TrGF 43 F 3.1‒3); it ‘has no father’ (Euripides fr. 303), but is itself the ‘ancient father of days’ (Euripides Suppliant Women 787‒8). In a comparative study of ancient Near Eastern cultures, Sacha Stern has indeed suggested that the ancient Greeks were unusually aware of the continuity of chronos as a separate entity.

Ideas about time, whether expressed through the imagery of a Greek poets or in Newton’s slightly more precise language, do not bear on the way time is measured. There is no such thing as an absolute chronology suitable for absolute time. All ways of measuring time are relative, and BC/AD dating is no more appropriate for Newtonian time than any other system of calculating years relative to a single point, including many of the systems used in Greco-Roman antiquity. If the term ‘absolute chronology’ is to be used at all, it should refer to a system which specifies the time in which events occur in relation to an external system (‘the first year of the twenty-third Olympiad’) rather than in relation to previous events (‘next year’).

Wilcox’s conception of absolute time seems as flawed, then, as his reading of Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative. And yet it is undeniable that Herodotus’ Histories do at times have an episodic quality ‒ and that occasionally his choices about where to reveal important information seem to us strange. Indeed, Wilcox’s analysis of ‘episodic time’ in Herodotus would have been better served by looking at the placement of other information that seems germane to the conspiracy and its aftermath. In his speech to the Persians before he jumps off the tower, Prexaspes retells the genealogy of the Achaemenids (the royal Persian line) as a way of asserting the correct order of rule in the empire. Much earlier in his work, Herodotus has told how Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, had a dream in which Darius’ rise to power was foreshadowed; and in recounting this dream Herodotus reveals that Darius himself is an Achaemenid (1.209). And yet Darius’ supposed Achaemenid descent plays absolutely no role in the conspiracy narrative ‒ even though it would have been highly relevant to Darius’ arguments for monarchy in the ensuing ‘constitutional debate’ (3.82). Darius is presented instead (as Wilcox notes) as a chancer who is last to join the conspiracy and whose ruthlessness and cynicism prove decisive in its success.

Wilcox does, then, capture something of the effect of reading Herodotus. But it is still questionable whether it is appropriate to speak of ‘episodic time’ ‒ as opposed to ‘episodic narrative’. Herodotus’ failure to integrate the whole of Darius’ past in a single story-line is not a cognitive clue to his sense of time but a sign, rather, of the extraordinary complexity and variety of the material that he was attempting to integrate and of the narrative artistry with which he nonetheless succeeded in shaping it.


S. Stern, Time and process in ancient Judaism (Oxford, 2003).
D. J. Wilcox, The measures of time past (Chicago, 1987).

For BC dating, see A.-D. von den Brincken, ‘Beobachtungen zum Aufkommen der retrospektiven Inkarnationsära’, Archiv für Diplomatik 25 (1979) 1‒20.

From Issus to Lepanto: battle scenes and temporality in the history of art

Artistic depictions of historical events involve a certain amount of temporal flattening. In some cases, visual artists can select a critical moment in the unfolding of an event, in which a specific snapshot of that moment can stand in for the whole, just as a playwright or poet might select the most critical and decisive period to stage or describe. Important moments could also be selected for their exemplary value, with battle itself becoming a metaphor for broader patterns of change. A recent visit to Munich for a workshop on ancient and modern political thought, hosted by  gave me the opportunity to visit the city’s Alte Pinakothek, where the impressive collection of early modern art includes a painting that has become emblematic of anachronism, Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht. But this turned out not to be the only work of art on display in Munich’s museum quarter to tackle the display of battle at epic scale, or to have been given a significant role in the construction of the history of art.

Altdorfer's Alexanderschlacht
Schlacht bei Issus, or the Alexanderschlacht, by Albrecht Altdorfer (1529). Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) painted the Alexanderschlacht in 1529, one of a series of paintings of battles commissioned by William IV of Bavaria. His depiction of the encounter between Darius and Alexander at the Battle of Issus, the decisive victory of the Macedonians over the Persians in 333 BC, has become the archetype of the anachronistic depiction of past events, partly for its compression of time in the depiction of battle. Several of its temporal devices have been identified as anachronisms in themselves, with the historiographer Reinhart Koselleck arguing that the depiction of the ancient forces in modern dress exemplifies a lack of understanding of the difference between past and present. The banners held by each side to note their casualty numbers suggest the complex temporality of the work; at the moment depicted there are already many warriors lying dead on the ground, but the battle continues and the dead have not yet been counted. The banners anticipate the end of the battle which is still taking place. The dramatic sky marks the battle as a cosmically significant encounter.

In our research into anachronism and antiquity, we’ve come to see Altdorfer’s work as a more complex and sophisticated engagement with the past than Koselleck’s interpretation suggests. Along with the other paintings of the Bavarian Historienzyklus, it shows a decisive moment in the history of an empire, with lessons for its viewers in the present facing the cultural and political challenges of their own times.

Aegina temple pediment
Panoramic view of the current display of the West pediment of the temple at Aegina, Munich Glyptothek. Picture credit: Vitold Muratov.

But Altdorfer is not the only example of complex temporality in the artistic depiction of battle. While his masterpiece represents one way in which single pictures could tell stories that contribute to a larger narrative, other depictions of historic or mythical battles, ancient and modern, can be seen nearby in Munich. The Munich Glyptothek contains sculptures from the pediments of the temple of Athena from Aegina, discovered in 1811 and acquired in 1812. The display of these sculptures was central to the design and construction of the Glypothek building, intended to showcase a developmental story of classical art. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) wrote that the arrival of the Aeginetan sculptures expanded the knowledge of Greek art (as the even more controversially removed Parthenon sculptures had done in Britain); the expansion of knowledge, to him, justified the removal of these works from their context.

Wounded warrior
Wounded warrior, from the Aeginetan west pediment, c. 500-490 BCE. Munich Glyptothek.

The west pediment shows a battle between Greek and Trojan heroes with the goddess Athena at the centre; fragmentary imagery on his shield suggests that the Greek hero is Ajax, associated with Aegina and an appropriate figure for this temple; on the east pediment, Heracles battles the Trojans. The original reconstruction of the west pediment had the opposing groups aiming at each other within the pediment, across the figure of Athena who appeared between them, as if the sculptural group represented a single episode in a battle. In a revised version, on display since the museum’s reopening after it was itself severely damaged in World War II, some of the figures aim outwards, confounding attempts to read the pediment as a single scene, and involving the onlooker in its action. The surviving parts of the sculpture appear in their fragmentary form, rather than as a complete work. (A painted cast of one of the more complete figures, Paris as an archer, suggests what the impact of the original polychrome presentation might have been, and some attachments such as Athena’s staff have been added.)

The sculptures themselves mark a significant moment in the development of classical Greek art, with the two pediments standing each side of a major stylistic shift. Those of the west pediment, dated to 500-490 BCE, mark the end of the severe archaic style, while those of the east pediment, from a few years later, have the distinctive features of the new classical style. Looking at these figures with their static expressions might evoke an anachronistic response in modern onlookers, unused to the conventions of representation in archaic art. The figure of the wounded soldier from the west pediment is particularly ‘strange’, as the museum’s catalogue notes, with his carefully posed body and apparent smile, typical of archaic sculpture. The warrior is pulling an arrow from his chest, an injury likely to be fatal, but his expression does not hint at the trauma of his immediate situation, while his hair remains unruffled. Hegel appears to have had a similar response to the Aiginetans. His lectures on aesthetics pronounced that ‘in the Aeginetan sculptures facial expressions and the posture are precisely what is relatively spiritless’ (Hegel 1975: 786), and that the faces are not a ‘true representation of nature’.

Nearby, the Museum Brandhorst houses another depiction of an epochal conflict, in the Lepanto cycle by Cy Twombly (1928-2011). Like the Aiginetan pediments, the desire to display this large work as a comprehensible whole influenced the design of a new museum building; the Lepanto canvases are displayed in a large oval gallery built for them. The cycle was commissioned for the 2001 Venice Biennale, which marked the chronological turning point between the millennia with a curated exhibition ‘The Plateau of Humankind’; the depiction of a Venetian naval encounter nods to the exhibition’s location. But the following year they made a first visit to Munich, where they were exhibited at the Alte Pinakothek.

Cy Twombly's Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich
Cy Twombly’s Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich

Like Altdorfer’s paintings and the Aegina pediment, Twombly’s Lepanto paintings depict a conflict that has gained in cultural significance over time, in this case the 7 October 1571 battle between the Holy League forces of the Venetian and Spanish empires, and the Ottoman empire, fought near Nafpaktos (Lepanto was its Venetian name) in the Gulf of Corinth. Twombly created a series of canvases that suggest the opposition of conflicting forces and the progression of their encounter, rather than a single image. But as the texts for the current display note, Twombly depicts a ‘supratemporal conflict’ in which he does not take sides.

Twombly’s twelve canvases feature two distinctive colour schemes and orientations. Paintings I, IV, VIII and XII show a bird’s eye view of the battle, while the others offer a more conventional view, with intensifying colour suggesting a narrative of intensifying action, the turquoises of the sea contrasting with the reds and oranges of the burning boats.

Twombly Lepanto II
Cy Twombly, Lepanto II (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich.

Thematically, the battle of Lepanto was a significant turning point in the history of naval warfare, one of the last major conflicts to be fought between galleys powered by oar rather than sailing ships. Twombly emphasises the role of oars in the minimalist outlines of his boats; boats and barges with oars are a recurrent symbol in his later work, sometimes recalling Greek myth in suggesting the transition between life and death. Just as the casualty figures for the Battle of Issus were not known while it was being fought, neither the historical significance of this battle as a technological turning point nor its significance in the conflict between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire were apparent while it was being fought. Unlike the two earlier more explicitly figurative depictions of war, Twombly’s cycle need not be read historically, but purely aesthetically, as the contrast of colour and the variation of intensity.

Whatever the historical forces that led to these three depictions of battle all being displayed in the Museumsviertel of Munich, they offer the contemporary visitor the opportunity to survey the use of the past across different genres of art and from different societies, and to contemplate the stories that historians have used them to tell.


  • Hegel, G.W.F. (1975) [1835] Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Koselleck, R. (1985) [1979], Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time, trans. K. Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Prettejohn, E. (2012) The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek sculpture and modern art from Winckelmann to Picasso (London: I. B. Tauris).
  • Wünsche, R. (2007) [2005], Glyptothek, Munich: masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, trans. R. Batstone (Munich: C.H. Beck).




Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Anachronistic Antiquities of Rome

Recent historiographical thinking has often denied to the ancients an understanding of history as a domain of inquiry in its own right, separate from experience of the present. Antiquity’s under-developed sense of history is conceptualized as a stage in a developmental narrative that culminates in the critical temporal self-consciousness that emerged after the French Revolution. Proponents of this view argue that the ancients’ inability to conceive of anachronism is symptomatic of their comparatively inchoate sense of historical time, and their commitment to cyclical models of history. Zachary Schiffman, in his recent book The Birth of the Past, makes this case at length. For Schiffman, the ancients were never able to elevate ‘differences between past and present … to a principle of historical knowledge’. Possessed of ‘a static view of the world that focused on recurrent patterns in history rather than singular events, on the universal and immutable over the contingent and variable’, the poets and historians of the ancient world could only conceive anachronisms on a non-systematic, ad hoc basis, rather than as phenomena indicative of fundamental differences between past and present, and between different historical periods.

One weakness of such accounts is their selectiveness. Schiffman focuses on Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, and a similar range of authors is covered in Reinhart Koselleck’s masterful book Futures Past, to which Schiffman’s approach is indebted. However, a particularly rich set of meditations on the ‘differences between past and present’ is found in a work which neither author considers at length, the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian active in the late first century BC. Dionysius’ basic aim in this work is to illustrate the close links between Greek and Roman civilization. On Dionysius’ view, the settlements from which Rome eventually developed were founded by Greek colonists, and many Roman rituals and cultural practices were Greek in origin. In reflecting on these connections, Dionysius pairs historical and ethical analysis, arguing that manners and conduct have in many respects declined through the course of Roman history. As a result, both people and ritual practices can appear as anachronistic remainders of a previous age, and serve as the basis for a critique of contemporary behaviour.

A telling instance of the former occurs in his juxtaposition of the qualities that characterised early Rome and with the habits found in his own day. He claims that Rome’s early leaders ‘worked for themselves, were modest, and did not resent honourable poverty’ (αὐτουργοὶ καὶ σώφρονες καὶ πενίαν δικαίαν οὐ βαρυνόμενοι, 10.17.6), and they did not aim to achieve ‘royal power’ for themselves. ‘The men of today’, on the other hand, ‘do the opposite in all respects’. Yet Dionysius concedes that some contemporary Romans do not conform to this trend. In them, he says, ‘the dignity of the state and the preservation of a likeness to those men [sc. of the past] still abides’ (δι᾿ οὓς ἕστηκεν ἔτι τὸ τῆς πόλεως ἀξίωμα καὶ τὸ σώζειν τὴν πρὸς ἐκείνους τοὺς ἄνδρας ὁμοιότητα). Such men stand out, being few in number, different from the majority of their contemporaries, and as a medium in which outdated qualities remain legible. Dionysius here anticipates the conceptualization of individual people as anachronisms that only becomes fully explicit in English in the nineteenth century.

Rituals can also be sites of anachronistic survivals. When discussing Numa’s institution of boundary stones as markers of property and the accompanying festival of the Terminalia at which sacrifices were offered to the stones as sacred objects (2.74), Dionysius comments that ‘memory’ of these practices ‘is still preserved today’ (τούτου μέχρι τῶν καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς χρόνων φυλάττουσι Ῥωμαῖοι μνημεῖα), but is undertaken ‘for form’s sake’ (τῆς ὁσίας αὐτῆς ἕνεκα). And yet the capacity for awe at the numinousness of these objects has not entirely vanished. According to Dionysius, the Romans still regard the boundary stones ‘as gods’ and make yearly sacrifices to them (θεούς τε γὰρ ἡγοῦνται τοὺς τέρμονας καὶ θύουσιν αὐτοῖς ὁσέτη). Such a conception is not of itself sufficient to stimulate good conduct; the Romans should also ‘observe the motive’ that led Numa to ‘conceive the boundary stones as gods’ (ἐχρῆν δὲ καὶ τὸ ἔργον ἔτι φυλάττειν αὐτούς, οὗ χάριν θεοὺς ἐνόμισε τοὺς τέρμονας ὁ Νόμας), by being content with their own possessions and not seeking to appropriate those of others by ‘force and trickery’ (βίᾳ … δόλῳ). Instead, contemporary Romans’ ‘desire for all things’ (ἡ πάντων ἐπιθυμία) leads them to compromise the socially beneficial model that their ancestors bequeathed.

Claude - Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum
Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682) – Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum, 1634, Art Gallery of South Australia

Like the men in whom a likeness to the great Roman leaders of the past is preserved, the ritual acts as a window on to early Romans’ ethically exemplary thinking and conduct. In reading this account, readers are invited to sense something of the impulsion towards ‘frugality and modesty and the desire for justice’ (2.74.1) that Numa’s regulations originally created. Yet the possibility for such a renewal of readers’ ethical capacities is balanced by the pessimistic acknowledgement that most people do not behave in this way. Good conduct has been made anachronistic by the predominance of appetites over ethical principles. Closely related to this predominance is the tendency for economic developments and accompanying changes in material culture to make ancient practices seem outdated. Having praised Romulus for instituting simple rituals, Dionysius notes that many if not all of these sacrifices are still being carried out ‘in the ancient manner’ even in his own time. Dionysius declares his admiration for the way in which those who carry out such rituals ‘adhere to ancestral custom and in no respect diverge from the ancient rites into the bombast of extravagance’ (διαμένουσιν ἐν τοῖς πατρίοις ἔθεσιν οὐδὲν ἐξαλλάττοντες τῶν ἀρχαίων ἱερῶν εἰς τὴν ἀλαζόνα πολυτέλειαν).

With this last phrase, Dionysius acknowledges that Rome’s vast empire and revenues enable rituals to be adorned with trappings and finery unavailable to the city’s founders. But trinkets such as ‘gold and silver vessels’ do not, Dionysius implies, make encounters with the gods any more meaningful. By contrast with ancient rituals ‘free of all attempt at display’ (πάσης ἀπειροκαλίας ἀπηλλαγμένα), the superficial allure of precious metals risks distracting worshippers from the rituals’ deeper purposes. Those who ‘adhere to ancestral custom’ are all the more admirable because of the background against which they now take place, which differs considerably from that in which the rituals were created.

In each of these passages, readers are challenged to adopt an historical self-consciousness that mirrors that of Dionysius himself. When reading about rituals practiced ‘in the ancient manner’ and the description of the Terminalia, readers are prompted, by reflecting on the processes by which they have come to seem anachronistic, to a fuller awareness of the features that enable the rituals to afford participants an efficacious engagement with the gods. The men who preserve ‘the dignity of the state’ similarly become paradigms against which readers might measure their own behaviour. Far from being incidental to Dionysius’ history, passages such as these make anachronistic phenomena into ‘a principle of historical knowledge’ around which the work’s ethical designs are structured.

  • Schiffman, Z.S. (2011) The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

An anachronistic anniversary

What is the history of the English word ‘anachronism’? This is the sort of question that (barring the difference of language) might well have engaged the attention of the diners who contribute to Plutarch’s Table-Talk or Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. In 2017, it seems more appropriate to raise this question in a web post rather than at a dinner party. And this post will itself seek to commemorate (just in time) a hitherto unheralded anniversary.

Portrait of John Hales (1584–1656)
John Hales (1584–1656), Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, whose 1617 sermon contains the earliest documented use of the term ‘anachronism’ in English.

In a 2009 article ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, a scholar of comparative literature, Joseph Luzzi, suggested that the word ‘anachronism’ was ‘first used in English in 1669’, a century after it had first appeared in Italian. Deriving the word from ‘a fusion of the Greek compound meaning “late in time”’, and so from ‘the oldest of Western high-cultural idioms’, Luzzi went on to suggest that the word ‘was actually created millennia after that culture had disappeared’: ‘the term’s etymology stands both as an ironic gloss on its semantic connotations and an allegory for its thematic claims.’ In other words, Luzzi is commenting on the fact that a classically derived word for belatedness was itself surprisingly late to appear on the scene (though scarcely, pace Luzzi, ‘millennia’ after the disappearance of ancient Greek culture). Luzzi’s ironic and allegorical reading of the etymology can be seen as a literal instance of a theme central to our project: he invokes the supposed history of the term ‘anachronism’ as a way of separating off antiquity from its aftermath. A compelling counter-claim would be that that Greek culture whose disappearance Luzzi misdates has never disappeared at all.

While Luzzi does not cite a source for his claim that ‘anachronism’ began in 1669, he presumably based that claim on the Oxford English Dictionary, where an entry for 1669 is indeed cited ‒ ‘This error sprang from Anachronisme, and confusion of Histories’ ‒ from the puritan Theophilus Gale’s work The Court of Gentiles (sub-title: A discourse touching the original of human literature, both philologie and philosophie, from the Scriptures and Jewish church). The problem is that this is the second entry the OED cites under ‘anachronism’. Its claim to priority is outdone by a quote from a chronological work by John Gregory (1609-1646), a chaplain of Christ Church in Oxford. Dating the birth of Christ ‘Anno Mundi 3949, Anno Period. Jul. 4713, Olympiad 197, and 748 of Nabonassar’, Gregory explained that ‘this Connexion of things is called Synchronism’ while ‘an error committed herein is called Anachronism: and either saith too much, and that is a Prochronism; or too little, and that is a Metachronism’. This passage is cited from Gregory’s 1649 Posthuma, and so dated ‘a[i.e. ante]1646’, the year of his death.
If one follows the OED entry, the intellectual historian Peter Burke, author of more than one treatment of the Renaissance sense of anachronism, seems to be making a better stab of it when he writes that it was ‘around 1650 that the term ‘anachronism’ (anachronismus, anacronismo, anachronism) began to come into use in Latin, Italian, French and English’ ‒ at least as far as the English term is concerned (Luzzi is right that the word entered Italian in the second half of the sixteenth century; instances of Latin anachronismus are earlier still). The influence of the OED citation of John Gregory is clear in the definition Burke offers of the word at its first appearance: ‘a mistake made in the course of “synchronism”, in other words the attempt to translate from one chronological system into another.’ Burke is here concerned to differentiate this early technical sense from the ‘sense of anachronism’ which is his main concern, namely an idea of historical difference. He concludes that ‘to speak of the sense of anachronism of Mantegna or Erasmus is … literally speaking, anachronistic’.

Burke’s conclusion is correct as far as the meaning of ‘anachronism’ itself is concerned ‒ though it is important to note that the concept of historical change could be expressed before the word ‘anachronism’ came to be applied to it. Implicit in his claim about the history of the term, however, is an ideological construction of space. Behind the Latin anachronismus lurks the Greek noun anachronismos, formed from the verb anachronizō, first attested around AD 200. The stem of ‘anachronism’ had been in existence for more than a millennium when Mantegna and Erasmus were alive, then, but only in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. It was during Mantegna’s lifetime (c. 1431‒1506), however, that manuscripts containing the word were first transported to Italy, and during Erasmus’ (1466‒1536) that those manuscripts were first published. Burke’s claim about the anachronism of speaking of anachronism is as much a claim about where the word was used as it is about when or how.

The problem with Burke’s reliance on the OED entry for ‘anachronism’ is that that entry itself commits an anachronism. The search facilities provided by the online OED throw up an earlier appearance of the word under ‘hysterosis’ in William Lisle’s 1623 edition with translation of A Saxon treatise concerning the Old and New Testament, written by a monk called Aelfricus. Lisle took a phrase used by Aelfricus, ‘Lingua Britannica’, to be a reference to old English, ‘by Hysterosis or Anachronisme (a figure much used in Historie, yea even in the Bible)’. Here the word is not used in the chronological sense of a breach of synchronism but as a term of literary criticism ‒ the sense in which it is most commonly used in Byzantine Greek.

As the OED advances alphabetically, it reveals a still earlier usage of ‘anachronism’, again as a literary figure. In a sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church in Oxford in Easter week, 1617, John Hales, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, addressed the Biblical text ‘Which the vnlearned and vnstable wrest, as they doe the other Scriptures, vnto their owne destruction’ (2 Peter 3.16). His aim was to warn against unwarranted projections of Calvinist doctrines onto obscure Biblical passages:

The Iewish Rabbines in their Comments on Scripture so oft as they met with hard and intricate texts, out of which they could not wrest themselues, were wont to shut vp their discourse with this, Elias cum venerit, solvet dubia: Elias shall answer this doubt when he comes. Not the Iewes only, but the learned Christians of all ages haue found many things in Scripture which yet expect Elias. For besides those texts of Scriptures, which by reason of the hidden treasures of wisdome, and depth of sense & mysterie laid vp in them, are not yet conceau’d, there are in Scripture of things that are ὕστερα πρότερα [‘later earlier’], seemingly confus’d, ἐναντιοφανῆ [‘opposite-seeming’], carrying semblance of contrarietie, anachronismes, metachronismes, and the like, which bring infinite obscuritie to the text: there are I say in Scripture more of them, then in any writing that I knowe secular or divine.

Why the mistake in the OED entry for ‘anachronism’? The misleading date it gives for the first appearance of the word could, at a pinch, be taken as a subtle in-joke, the entry for ‘metachronism’ metachronically revealing an anachronism in the entry for ‘anachronism’. But it is easy enough to understand why the editors of the original OED (or rather: A new English dictionary on historical principles), despite their formidable filing systems, failed to pick up these earlier usages; and the dictionary itself appeared in fascicles over the course of 44 years, with the entries for ‘anachronism’, ‘hysterosis’, and ‘metachronism’ first appearing in 1884, 1899, and 1906. Those editors are rather to be admired for their coverage: using digital resources such as Early English Books Online I can find no earlier instance of the word in English.

Our anniversary-conscious age has made much of Luther and Lenin this year. The first recorded use of ‘anachronism’ in English is not quite in the same league as the Reformation or the Russian Revolution. But it is still worth remembering that sermon delivered in Oxford a century after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, three hundred years before Lenin travelled by train to the Finland station. Even if this anniversary may itself one day be shown to be an anachronism …


  • Peter Burke, ‘The sense of anachronism from Petrarch to Poussin’, in C. Humphrey and W. M. Ormrod, eds, Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge, 2001), 157-74.
  • Joseph Luzzi, ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, Comparative Literature 61 (2009), 69-84.